Nicole Buffett in West Seattle

To write in earnest about an artist’s work, one tends to write as if the audience will also see the works at some point—to even inspire the reader to seek out the works. It is thus dreadfully difficult to discuss Nicole Buffett’s latest series of works because very few people in Seattle will have the chance to see them. All the same, I almost wish that there were more occasions like this, because it was a splendid gathering of people.

But now I’m really just rubbing it in.

The crowd at the reception in the donated workspace in West Seattle

The crowd on the night of the opening. Nicole Buffett converses with Jiawen Shi on the left.

Artist Nicole Buffett uses mixed media—mostly natural materials—suspended in resin to create large, abstract works. For six weeks this spring, she worked at a feverish pace to complete several dozen pieces in a work space in West Seattle owned by the Frye Foundation. All of these works will go to Beijing in July, and probably find homes there, but for one night entrepreneur Scott Daggatt gathered members of the arts community to enjoy the fruits of Buffett’s massive labor. Daggatt remarked cordially that the beauty of such an event is that it “is not an ask.” There was nothing to buy, no cause to support; the only thing to spend was one’s time in conversation. In the end, the event was less an opening than a salon, wherein the discussion was inspired by the works, their origins, and their destination. I’d like to touch on all of these things, for even if you can’t enjoy the works before they are shipped to Asia, the dialog that they inspire should still happen here in Seattle.

The Destination

a painting by Nicole BuffettThe world knows China as an exporter, not an importer, and the infamous Great Firewall of China (officially known as The Golden Shield Project) makes clear that even immaterial, informational imports do not easily enter its borders. Hence, the very act of sending a new collection of art to China is compelling in itself. There is little understanding between the populations of China and America, despite how inextricably bound their economies are. This is improving as exchange in business and the arts inspires more dialog, but there often seems to be more speculation than fact and more fear than curiosity. Artists have the advantage of showing rather than telling, which allows them to be more emotionally and spiritually generous than pundits and analysts. Buffett’s work ends up reading almost like a love letter to China, and a beautiful one at that. Still, there is no denying that the courtship between the countries shall be an uneasy one.

A work by Nicole Buffett using Chinese medicinesIt seems that, to many Americans, China is not so much a country as it is a concept, and a very muddled one at that. Familiarity with China is limited to cheap and greasy noodles, the ubiquitous “Made in China” stamped on items throughout the average American home, and the sentiment that Chinese exports are all of inferior quality, but inescapable. Especially in our austere times, there is a prevailing sense that one either goes cheap, or goes without. Hence, the concept of China is deeply bound in the fabric of American consumerism and domesticity. China furnishes America. Meanwhile, China remains exotic; according to some, it is a place where people eat all manner of roots and bugs and antlers and god-knows-what, a place that is loud and polluted and hostile, a place where people communicate by screaming and spitting, a Communist place. China frightens America. It is at once the familiar Cuddly Panda, and the fierce Red Dragon.

What is clear to most everyone is that the fate of the humanity shall be decided collectively, and China is a large and influential portion of earth’s nearly 7 billion humans. Many concerns are registered about this, especially regarding the industrial havoc that has poisoned the environment and the citizens of China, as if such havoc is a Chinese invention. The well-documented history of America’s industrial adolescence says otherwise, and anyone in an industrial or mining town knows that we’ve yet to fully mitigate the environmental costs of rapid progress and production—far from it. The fact is, most people will see only their tiny portion of the life of their goods in the supply chain, and the producers prefer it that way. Consumers won’t see the rust and rot of the machines that produce the goods, nor will they see the mountains of garbage that are unfortunately far more durable than the broken and soiled ephemera of which they are composed. Many developed countries pay well to ensure that their citizens don’t need to confront such material consequences; they pay to ship it back to China.

The irony of this reality has not been lost on cultural critics; America has become known to some as an exporter (sometimes by force) of culture, of democratic ideals and the American Dream, of Hollywood and rock and roll, of consumerism. And what could be a more symbolic export of consumerism than the exhausted and obsolete waste of it, shipped back whence it came? There is much to be discussed, much cause for concern regarding this, and others are addressing it quite well. (For instance, see the work of Edward Burtynsky, especially as featured in the documentary Manufactured Landscapes.) Regarding Buffett’s work, we have a chance to examine the flipside of these issues: the beauty of one export (an art collection) to China, and even the dogma surrounding our fear of ecological irresponsibility and the soundness of our species. Above all, we must admit that China and America are bound by consumption and that as time passes the resemblances between the two countries grow. On both sides, anxiety about the other country (or the concept of the other country) is at its core a confrontation with the shadow of one’s own culture. It is in this loaded context that I would like to examine Buffett’s works.

Tools of the trade

The Origins

For this collection, Buffett used materials collected from Chinese grocers and apothecaries and applied much of it through sifting and pouring. Buffet refers to them as paintings, and I wholly agree with her usage of the word; there is no paint to be discerned, but not long ago paints were—just like Buffett’s materials—mineral and organic powders suspended in oil or some other medium, whose colors were as fugitive as they were natural, unfortunately. Layers of ginseng powder, swirls of kaolin, mushrooms and herbs frozen in clear plastic provided a delicious, earthy palette that will not soon fade. Artist Anna Skibska astutely remarked that they reminded her of ice puddles encasing humus and detritus. On the tables dotting the room, rounded shards of plastic impregnated with dust (by-products of Buffett’s process) indeed looked like what one might find at a stream’s edge in winter.

To produce a painting, Buffett creates layer after layer of carefully poured epoxy and ingredients. The latter must sit for extended periods to ensure that they fully embed and their pigments fully imbue the medium. The final products achieve an illusion of depth greater than the actual thickness of the panel. Some seem to rise from the depths with astounding dimensionality. Others transform portions of the white backing into what seem to be light sources, stars shining from within an umber nebula.

Buffett herself said that she hopes that viewers will focus on the natural aspects and aesthetic of the work, and I hope the same. More specifically, I hope that it will expand viewers’ understanding of what is and is not “natural,” despite—or perhaps because of—a distinctly industrial sensibility in the works. It is not just the highly polished, clear epoxy surfaces, but also the ultimate effect of the natural ingredients. Layered swirls and diffusions of rust-colored material—sometimes overlaying clean, intentional lines—resembled snapshots of urban and industrial decay: the walls of an abandoned factory, a polluted stream. However, this did not make them any less appealing, for here was reproduced the novel beauty of such things, which is unsurprisingly overlooked elsewhere because they are poisonous and repellant. In this regard, they recall the works of artist Eric Adrian Lee, but Lee uses the unrestrained palette of consumerism to create more literal, industrial surfaces, which explore the melancholic beauty of anonymous ruins. Buffett’s work is more abstracted and uses a restrained palette to create a specific sociocultural resonance. Both artists perform alchemy with their materials, and the transformation is especially interesting in Buffett’s work because we understand that these ingredients are beneficial. A star anise becomes a boil of tar or bitumen. Powdered roots become rust or something more sinister oozing beneath a smooth veneer. All of the works are visually arresting, and the skillful blending of materials gives each piece a unique character and narrative.

An unfinished painting by Nicole Buffett

A work in progress

One could stop here and remain content with the aesthetic merits of the works, but from some these works will draw considerable discussion of manufacture and nature. There was much to reflect upon in the murk lurking just beneath those glossy surfaces.

The Works

The viewer’s focus will always be limited: On the surface of the paintings one can see a trace of one’s own reflection, as in a desilvered mirror, but one cannot simultaneously see the surface and the substances contained therein. In kind, one cannot perceive simultaneously an image of industrial decay—destruction through nature—and the homeopathic ingredients—healing through nature. Here one finds that distinctly Eastern philosophical simultaneity of destruction and creation, the observation of which is influenced by one’s subjective position. In this sense, it is again appropriate to regard the paintings as nebulae, the remains of great astral catastrophes and the birthplace of new stars. Furthermore, the viewer’s visible reflection might yield another intellectual approach to the work.

The human body is of the earth itself and influenced by everything that it absorbs, but one symptom of modernity is the sense that humans have somehow extracted themselves from nature and that their actions are unnatural. Much like raw materials and finished goods, there is little resemblance between food and our own bodies (though the ancients didn’t think so). Buffett’s paintings illustrate this alienation of the self from the material, rendering unrecognizable and mysterious many of the ingredients used to create them. One may easily forget that all of these things are of essentially the same stuff and, despite all our ingenuity and the mystery of our own making, humans are natural animals; we’re just highly adaptable, relatively clever, and therefore terribly invasive animals. On the one hand, we should not feel superior or entitled. On the other hand, any misanthropy is essentially anthropocentric and counterproductive.

Verily, Nature writ large includes humanity and all of human invention, even the things we consider most unnatural. Seeing the ruins of ancient structures and modern machines affirms this, as nature reclaims the materials through inexorable entropy. Nothing is permanent, not even Styrofoam and nuclear fallout, not even Buffett’s work, though it in a way appears both ancient and newly minted, and, for that matter, immortal. I am not an apologist for unthinking, destructive behavior to satisfy short term desires. I am also not suggesting that words such as “synthetic” and “unnatural” are altogether misleading; they make necessary distinctions. Rather, I would like to correct the rhetoric of individuals who become misanthropic and consider unnatural our tendency to spoil the health and happiness of others through laziness and apathy. The trouble is that such behavior is all too natural, something we should hope to transcend, and this hope is perhaps the central germ of art.

A work of eerie depth by Nicole Buffett

Despite the reflected ceiling lights, one can see how profoundly Buffett has achieved the illusion of depth in this piece.

Allow me to provide another, slightly more digressive thought based on Buffett’s use of homeopathic materials. Health and the restoration of the body have always transfixed humans. In the earth, our ancestors saw a great, murky mirror of their bodies and behavior—a macrocosm reflecting the microcosm. Animals were allegory for human virtue and error; sympathetic magic relied on the notion that plant and animal parts that resembled the organs (or even the human body, as with mandrakes) healed that which they resembled. Even then, it was understood that a little went a long way, and excess was toxic.

These superficial superstitions have been dismissed as quackery (often rightly so), but we are learning now that some homeopathic remedies display surprising efficacy. We are also learning that we have not mastered our destructive love of excess—the belief that there is never too much of a good thing. Certainly, homeopathic remedies are disturbingly earthy, part of the same untrustworthy world that makes humans vulnerable in the first place. It is no surprise that in the last century, when man’s supremacy seemed almost absolute, new pills captured the imagination of the public. Now we can’t get enough. Modern medicines, candy-colored and smooth and shiny as the machines that spit them out, sealed and compartmentalized, designed to fix all of nature’s mistakes, are about as perfect a metaphor for the modern ideal as could ever exist. Our medications are like silver bullets, missiles, spacecraft, pure modern magic that disappear into the body and do their work, leaving no trace. (This is at least implied, though we know that they do leave a trace—one so durable that our water supplies are now laced with the excreted prescriptions of others.)

Perhaps I’ll be the only one who sees it, but standing before Buffett’s paintings, I could not help but feel that I was looking at perfectly apt representations of our ambiguous social and cultural state. Destruction and creation; natural and synthetic media; East and West; restraint and excess; all coalesced in these ancient, exotic remedies in space age-packaging, ready to be shipped back whence they came. Of course, these remedies would be a tad hard to swallow, but the truth often is. And though the future is terribly uncertain, even sinister (Ah! Perhaps they were paintings of a gathering storm!), and though there is much to consider and much of concern (ecological nightmares, dehumanization, culture clash), one thing is clear, and one thing is quite manifest in the works of Nicole Buffett:

We’re in this together, and that could be a very good thing.


  • Changjun Kim

    In my case, I fell in love with Nicole’s works at first sight and then I was so taken with Nicole’s great personality. She is real young hotshot.

  • Joyce Gehl

    astounding. Your story inspired me to go to her web site to try to find out where I can see the work in person. Sadly, no shows coming up in Seattle.